An Interview with Ray Zhou and Shubham Goel, Forbes (US & Canada 2019) Enterprise Technology

Bruno (HE) Mirchevski
May 2 · 11 min read

(#00016) — The best leaders are those who lead by example.

The best way to achieve something is by working as a team. When you combine individual minds that share a different background, have a different experience, yet strive towards one general idea, vision, and goal, you get results!

It is difficult to communicate an idea and provide a solution in today’s world, where it feels as if though everything has already been invented. In reality, there is sufficient space for improvement, you only need to have the right approach and motivation to make that change for the better.

You need to identify a problem and do your best to solve it.

The world is continually evolving and we get to witness how it transforms for the better in many aspects. Behind those changes are the visionaries, and the people that want to make a change.

I am pleased to have had the experience to interview two young individuals that fit that description. Ray Zhou and Shubham Goel are the masterminds behind Affinity, a relationship intelligence platform striving to revolutionize and expand the traditional CRM.

Their effort and hard work have put them on the list of Forbes “30 under 30 US & Canada 2019: Enterprise Technology“ giving them the credit they deserve.

Usually, my interviews target individuals, but Ray Zhou and Shubham Goel are a team and their joint effort is what got them to where they are today. The success of Affinity belongs to both of them.

To learn more about their story, and the story behind their business, hear what Ray Zhou, as a part of the team, has to say about their journey.

I hope you enjoy it!

Bruno (HE) Mirchevski (The Logician):

First off, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with me! Can you tell us more about Ray and Shubham? Who you are and why did you choose the career you have today?

Ray Zhou and Shubham Goel:

Shubham Goel (left) & Ray Zhou (right)

Shubham and I met as undergrads at Stanford from different parts of the world — I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and he grew up in New Delhi.

We studied engineering and computer science together. It was there — inside and outside the classroom — that we learned how empowering it is to know how to build tools and systems.

The great thing about engineering as a discipline is that it builds this mental muscle for solving problems with the limits of technology. You can observe the way something is being done today and ask, “How would I design a solution to this problem given all of the data I have access to and what’s technically feasible?

We spent a lot of our time building things together and exploring and answering many forms of that question.

It wasn’t our original goal to become entrepreneurs. At the end of the day, we are builders and problem solvers. What mattered to us was solving big problems that would make a significant impact.

When the events that led to Affinity happened, we realized that there was a huge company to be built, and a huge technology vision that we couldn’t stop thinking about.

Building companies are more than just incredibly rewarding (and incredibly hard!) — in some sense a company like a vehicle for driving change with great people. So we started as builders and ended up in the business of building companies.

Bruno (HE) Mirchevski (The Logician):

I would also like to congratulate for being among Forbes 30 under 30! Was this a dream come true? Did you see this coming?

Ray Zhou and Shubham Goel:

Thanks! We were both surprised and grateful when we were named in Forbes. I wouldn’t say it was exactly a dream come true — given our dream from the beginning wasn’t to win any particular award or recognition.

We’ve always been in this first and foremost to build a meaningful and massive company with the best people in the world.

So it was a pleasant surprise along the way. Forbes 30 Under 30 is a fantastic community and we’re incredibly grateful to be a part of it.

Bruno (HE) Mirchevski (The Logician):

Now, can you tell us more about Affinity? How was your business born? Why is it important?

Ray Zhou and Shubham Goel:

We built Affinity out of a realization we had during our time at Stanford. It started as a summer of benign explorations that turned into an intensive series of conversations with many professionals across many industries.

We wanted to better understand what all of these people did for a living. We realized they all had one thing in common: they managed business relationships for a living. More importantly, they all faced the same fundamental problems — so we asked the (then) obvious question: was there a way to solve these problems? That question was the spark that catalyzed Affinity.

Affinity’s vision is to build a world where anyone can cultivate and fully harness their network to succeed.

To us, relationships are more than just the backbone of the world’s biggest industries. They’re also one of the very few assets that every professional builds up over their careers and lifetimes.

We realized that something was missing from the way the world managed and leveraged its relationships: that the root source of our relationship data actually lives inside our communications.

The tools we all use to communicate daily — emails, calendars, messages — generate billions of data points every day that paint the deepest and most powerful understanding of our relationships.

Unfortunately, most of that data is going to waste; no platform was unifying it in seamless and intuitive ways to create value for the world.

Affinity is building a new kind of smart infrastructure to open up the shared value of this data and make it highly actionable and useful for anyone.

We think the merging point of AI and communications will power a new generation of tools in relationship management.

From enterprises to consumers, everyone will harness this infrastructure to cultivate and leverage a more valuable network. It’s democratizing that technology and vision that drives everything we build here at Affinity.

Bruno (HE) Mirchevski (The Logician):

According to you, what are the core values of any business? Please explain.

Ray Zhou and Shubham Goel:

That’s an interesting question. To put it another way, I think core values vary significantly from business to business, and in fact, are some of the most unique building blocks of a company’s DNA.

So what are core values?

To us, they are deeply ingrained principles that guide all of a company’s actions and serve as its cultural cornerstones. When done right, core values should inspire and motivate a company, align the way it thinks about its culture, and help its people make better decisions (or more importantly, have a guiding framework for understanding what a good decision even means).

We have 5 core values at Affinity, which deeply influence every aspect of what we do and the culture we’ve built.

We realized these core values by reflecting upon the times in Affinity’s history when we felt like we were truly at our best.

Those values are:

  • That we care personally for each other
  • That we are playmakers
  • That we take pride in what we do
  • That we are radically open-minded
  • That we are obsessed with learning

We’ve written extensively about what each of them means to us, which you can read more about on our website.

Bruno (HE) Mirchevski (The Logician):

What kind of example are you setting for your team? How do you ensure a healthy working culture? What are the best team engagement strategies?

Ray Zhou and Shubham Goel:

The best leaders are those who lead by example. Exceptional culture isn’t just writing up a bunch of words in a document to publish and feel good about. It’s the summation of everyone’s actions and behaviors.

That example needs to be set first and foremost by us, but ultimately by everyone at Affinity. Not just founders or executives or managers, but literally everyone — in the way we do 1–1s, run meetings, give and receive feedback, handle disagreements, make decisions, set strategy. That’s the first part of the equation.

The second part of the equation comes from recognizing when great culture happening and enabling us to be at our best — and this too is something that needs to come from everyone.

We’ve done a lot of work at Affinity to shape an environment where cultural recognition can happen. For instance, we have a strong culture of giving shoutouts, and every shoutout is tied to our 5 values.

As another example, Affinity holds a regular all-hands meeting that culminates in the passing on of a throne.

The owner of the throne is the teammate who best exemplified Affinity’s core values over the last 2 weeks. It’s literally this giant throne that you get to sit in.

That person then elects the next person to own the throne, recognizing why they deserve it through storytelling. In this way, great culture doesn’t just become something that managers are thinking about — but that everyone is aware of and identifying.

Bruno (HE) Mirchevski (The Logician):

How did you know this is what you are ‘supposed’ to do? What would you advise all young people who still struggle to find their career?

Ray Zhou and Shubham Goel:

There are so many opportunities out there these days! Especially with the democratization of availability of information, young folks have access to so many new careers that weren’t even conceivable just a few years ago — so I totally empathize how hard this is.

That said, my personal bias is that everyone optimizes their careers early on for learning. I think people sometimes forget how long their work lives are — you’re going to work a few decades, so if you take the first 4–5 years out of school and learn many more things than your peers, you’ll be set up to crush the next 30+ years of your life.

You definitely learn a lot when starting a company, but there are less painful ways of getting to that outcome.

Bruno (HE) Mirchevski (The Logician):

Can you describe what does success means to you? Is it always related to work or money? Why?

Ray Zhou and Shubham Goel:

I think success is a more holistic concept than being tied to just work/money, or at least it should be.

That said, I’m an entrepreneur and spend a lot of my waking hours working, so it’ll be hypocritical of me to say that work doesn’t form for a big part of it for me. But I have realized it is important to have a more balanced outlook towards life.

For example, I have been spending a lot of time outside of work on some fitness goals for the last year, which has been very rewarding and has improved my work life as well.

Bruno (HE) Mirchevski (The Logician):

Did you have support from your friends and families since the beginning? How are your biggest supporters now? Was it tough to fight your competition?

Ray Zhou and Shubham Goel:

Our families and friends have been terrific. They’ve been really supportive throughout. I think you need a really strong support system throughout the journey — especially early on when nothing is going in your favor! It can be an emotionally challenging time.

Additionally, we’ve been fortunate to have wonderful, understanding investors, and a great set of advisors and mentors who have guided us appropriately. We also work with an awesome executive coach who has been tremendously helpful in enabling our growth as leaders.

Regarding competition, I think you need to clearly know what you’re innovating on — the spaces these days have become so large that on the surface, all products seem the same in large software markets that are growing fast.

So questions like: are you innovating on the product? Market? Price? are very important to get right early on in order to shine.

We’re a product-driven company and we believe that the best products win, so that’s what we’ve chosen to innovate on which has given us a massive competitive advantage in the verticals we’re operating in.

Bruno (HE) Mirchevski (The Logician):

Let’s say it is the year 2030. What have you achieved by now? Where is your business?

Ray Zhou and Shubham Goel:

Hopefully, Affinity is helping millions of people around the world leverage and harness their relationships in effective ways by then.

I hope we’ve built a platform where people are effectively finding new jobs, closing the biggest deals of their lives, connecting with potential mentors — you name it — by using real-time data hiding inside our communications. That’s the dream.

I’m sure if we set ourselves out to achieve the dream, everything else will follow — building a billion-dollar business, hiring lots of great people, building game-changing products, and so on.

Bruno (HE) Mirchevski (The Logician):

Finally, what is the best piece of advice you can give to everyone reading this interview?

Ray Zhou and Shubham Goel:

Focus on improving 1% every day!

The small increments compound very quickly (1% every day means 37 times in 1 year — isn’t that crazy!?).

The story behind the success of these two young people should serve as an inspiration to all of us to strive for more. To focus on improving ourselves and the people around us.

Sometimes all it takes is an idea. But this idea of yours also needs a lot of work, experimenting, observing, and listening to people’s needs.

Nonetheless, once you’ve taken the first step, you are one step closer towards making a change and reaching your version of success.

You’ll never know just how much an idea of yours can help the world until you try it.

More often than not, with an exceptional teammate by your side, you can achieve anything you set your mind to.

Don’t you think?

“The Mission to Empower 1 Million Entrepreneurs”

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The Logician

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Bruno (HE) Mirchevski

Written by

The Logician (Dreamer) 👁️ Don’t follow me. I am lost too!😎 Founder of HE Group - (Investor) 📈

The Logician

Don’t follow me. I am lost too!😎

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